The Myths about Brest Cancer

Caroline Richardson is a breast surgeon at the Chiswick Medical Centre (private healthcare) and Kingston Hospital (NHS). She will be talking to women on Thursday from 6.30pm on 20 June at Chiswick Medical Centre, along with a dermatologist, a gynaecologist and a sports and medicine exercise specialist in a free session on Women’s health.

“We need to dispel some myths” Caroline told me. “One of those myths is that breast cancer is a disease which mainly affects young women. Not true”. 80% breast cancer cases occur in women who are over the age of 50 and in fact if you are under 30 and having regular periods and you go and see you GP, your GP may advise to wait until after your next period as the lump is likely to be due to hormonal changes.

“Another myth to be dispelled – most breast cancers are not treatable. Not true, they are” says Caroline. “People think they’re not, but they are”. Only 3-5% of women who present with symptoms of breast cancer at clinics actually have the disease. Sometimes women have growths called ‘fibroadenoma’ – an over growth of normal breast tissue – which are harmless. Of the tiny percentage who have cancer, the majority survive. According to survival statistics from Cancer Research UK, 78% women with breast cancer in England and Wales survive for 10 years or more after their diagnosis. The age group in which breast cancer survival is highest is 60 – 69 according to the latest figures (2009 – 2013). Other good news is that survival rates are increasing – survival rates have doubled in the last 40 years. So Caroline’s main message seems to be ‘don’t panic’, but obviously she recommends women to check their breasts for lumps regularly and act promptly if they find one.

Beyond that it is difficult to generalise. “Breast cancer is not just one disease” she says. “Some women are effectively cured. Some continue living with secondary disease and continue living for a long time with good quality of life”. There are some who die of course. There were 11, 563 deaths in 2016, the last full year for which Cancer Research UK has figures. That figure represents 7% of all cancer deaths in that year. The peak mortality rate for 2014 – 2016 was among the 90+ age group. These figures are comforting to a degree but should not inspire complacency. “Anyone with breast cancer needs a one on one conversation with their oncologist to understand the nature of their disease” says Caroline. My friend Diane, a fiercely intelligent American woman who died of breast cancer in her 50s comes to mind.

In other good news, the UK is apparently at the forefront of oncoplastic surgery, in which Caroline is a specialist. It means the reconstruction of breast tissue in an aesthetically pleasing way. “Apart from the scar you wouldn’t know I’d been in there” she says, with a measure of pride. Caroline doesn’t do reconstructive surgery on healthy breasts. That she leaves to others.

Why would people go private? I asked her. “The NHS do an amazing job but appointments are that bit quicker and more convenient” she says. We’re only talking a difference of maybe a couple of weeks, as the NHS target is two weeks from the GP’s referral to the first cancer clinic appointment, and there’s a drive at the moment to push that down to one week. Chiswick Medical Centre offers evening appointments, which the NHS don’t, and offers a one-stop clinic in which you can see Caroline or one of her colleagues, have imaging done immediately after, and go back and discuss the images all on the same day.

Why are survival rates improving? “Everything is getting better” she says – “better disease understanding, better surgical techniques and improved drug therapy – more effective drugs which are better targetted”.

What causes breast cancer? “We still don’t know the exact cause” she says but there is evidence of a an increased prevalence in post-menopausal women who are overweight. She doesn’t make any promises. Active, healthy, non-smoking, non-drinking women still get breast cancer. But there is evidence to suggest a link between breast cancer and fatty tissue. A healthy diet, regular physical exercise and moderating your alcohol intake are all to be advised. Yeah, they would be.

You can hear Caroline’s talk about breast cancer and meet her other colleagues talking about other women’s health issues on Thursday 20 June at 7.30pm at the Chiswick Medical Centre. (Free) tickets available here.

This article is content paid for by the Chiswick Medical Centre.